Frontline World

VIETNAM, Looking for Home, May 2003

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "Vietnam: Looking for Home"

Slideshow From a Watery Landscape

Between the Lines

Land, People, History, Economy

War, Culture, Politics, Travel




Images of Vietnamese landscapes, people and culture
Facts & Stats

• Land
• People
• Government and History
• Economy and Technology
• True Too


Vietnam encompasses 127,246 square miles, 4,200 of which are covered by water.

Vietnam shares a border with three countries: Cambodia and Laos to the west and China to the north. Its highest point, Fan Si Pan Mountain near the Chinese border in the northwest, is more than 10,000 feet high.

Seventeen percent of Vietnam's land is arable, and only 9 percent is irrigated for agriculture. Forests and woodlands account for another 30 percent, although logging and slash-and-burn practices are currently contributing to deforestation.

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The population of Vietnam is approximately 81 million. About one in three people is under 15 years of age. Life expectancy is 67 for men and 72 for women.

Vietnamese is the official language; English is increasingly favored as a second language. French, Chinese, Khmer and various highlander languages are also spoken.

Between 85 percent and 90 percent of Vietnam's residents are ethnically Vietnamese. The remaining 10 percent to 15 percent are from a variety of ethnic backgrounds: Chinese, Hmong, Thai, Khmer, Cham and 50 different highlander (Montagnard) groups.

Vietnam has a low rate of HIV/AIDS, with only a 0.24 percent prevalence, compared with 0.61 percent in the United States and 20 percent in South Africa.

Vietnam is home to 36,000 monks and nuns and more than 28,800 pagodas, temples, monasteries and nunneries. Buddhism is the principal religion. The Taoist, Confucian, Hoa Hao, Caodaist, Muslim and Christian religions are sizable minorities.

Public education at the primary and secondary level is free in Vietnam; private education is allowed only at the college and university level. The literacy rate is 94 percent.

According to the 2000 U.S. census, there are 1.2 million people of Vietnamese descent in the United States. Forty percent of Vietnamese Americans live in California. Another 12 percent live in Texas.

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Government and History

Vietnam has a long history of occupation and war. For 2,000 years, it was intermittently independent and dominated by China. In 1883, it was colonized by France. Vietnam fought a war of independence against the French from 1946 to 1954 and was embroiled in a war with the United States from 1965 to 1974. After the war, North and South Vietnam, separated in 1954, were united. In 1995, the United States established diplomatic relations with Vietnam.

The chief of state is President Tran Duc Luong, who has been in power since September 1997. The prime minister is Phan Van Khai. The Communist Party of Vietnam is the sole political party, and all media outlets in Vietnam are state-owned. Human Rights Watch says that although thousands of political prisoners have been freed in recent years, the Vietnamese government continues to suppress, harass and imprison dissidents. Transparency International gives Vietnam a rating of 2.4 on its "corruption perceptions index" of 1 to 10, with 10 being the cleanest ranking.

As of 2003, Vietnam is one of five remaining communist countries in the world. The other four are Cuba, China, Laos and North Korea.

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Economy and Technology

Vietnam's annual gross domestic product of $168 billion works out to a per-capita income of $207. An estimated 25 percent of the population is unemployed; 37 percent live below the poverty line.

Vietnam's five largest export partners are in Asia and Oceania. The country's largest Western partners are Germany and the United States, each of which account for 5 percent of Vietnamese exports.

The service industry makes up 40 percent of Vietnam's GDP. The economy also depends heavily on industry (35 percent) and agriculture (25 percent).

In 1997, there were 8.2 million televisions (one per 10 residents) and 3.6 million radios (one per 22 residents) in Vietnam.

As of 2002, 400,000 users were logging on to the Internet from Vietnam. In April 2003, the ministry of Education and Training and the ministry of Post and Telecommunications together signed a memorandum of understanding to allow all educational institutions at high school and higher levels to have Internet access by year's end, at an estimated cost of $445 million.

There are 10 million motorbikes on the roads of Vietnam. In late 2002, some companies ceased motorbike assembly in Vietnam in response to a government effort to limit production because of the soaring rate of traffic accidents.

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True Too

American golf sensation Tiger Woods is named after Nguyen Phong (nickname "Tiger"), the South Vietnamese soldier who saved the life of Woods's father during the Vietnam War.

Vietnam won its first-ever Olympic medal in the 2000 Sydney Games when Tran Hieu Ngan won a silver medal in the women's tae kwon do 57-kg division.

As of April 2003, shoppers can buy 46 different movies under the category "Vietnam War." All but nine are rated R.

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The Saigon Times Magazine,
Dec. 6, 2002; BBC report, Dec. 4, 2002;;;
Transparency International;